All foreigners visiting Russia need visas. Technically, you must confirm accommodation for every night you’ll be in the country, although in practice there are ways to get around this.
In October 2002 the Russian parliament passed laws radically changing the country’s visa-issuing system. The aim is to crack down on illegal immigration for work, but the fallout from the changes has also caused chaos among travel agencies and companies applying for tourist and business visas for regular travelers.
OVIR, the Interior Ministry’s passport and visa agency, has been renamed PVU (passportno-vizovoye upravleniv), although outside of Moscow it’s likely that the acronym OVIR will continue to be used. All travel agencies wanting to issue business visas must register with the Interior Ministry; with tens of thousands of agencies in Russia this will inevitably take some time. The new types of visa, as we understand them, are discussed in the section below, but the upshot is that getting anything other than a straight tourist visa might be more tricky and certainly more time-consuming than in the past.
A Russian visa can be a passport-sized paper document separate from your passport, a sticker in your passport, or both. Both the separate form and the sticker list entry/exit dates, your passport number, children traveling with you, and visa type (see Types of Visa later). It’s an exit permit too, so if you lose it (or overstay), leaving the country can be harder than getting in.
Some cities in Russia (places of strategic importance, such as Norilsk in Siberia ) are still off-limits to foreigners but these are few and far between.
If you turn up in a city that is not listed on your tourist visa, it’s possible you may encounter difficulties either at your hotel when you check in or later with the visa registration authorities, though this can usually be talked around. If you do venture from the main routes, it’s best to play it safe and get a business visa – its authoritative appearance effectively grants you the run of the country.
The new visa laws create a ‘regular visa’ category with eight types. The main ones affecting travelers are ‘tourist’, ‘tourist group’, ‘business’, ‘student’, ‘private’ and ‘on-the-spot’.
For all visas you’ll need:
- A passport valid for at least a month beyond your return date – usually only a photocopy of the data pages of your passport are required, but some consulates may want to see the original;
- One passport-size (4cm by 4.5cm) full-face photos, not more than a year old. Vending machine photos with white background are fine if they’re identical;
- A completed application form, including entry/ exit dates;
- Handling fee;
You’re also going to need a visa support letter of some kind. This will be arranged by your tourist operator or, if you’re applying for a visa independently, from various organizations in Russia.
Tourist Visas/Tourist Group Visas
These are the most straightforward and inflexible visas available. In theory you’re supposed to have booked accommodation for every night in Russia , but in practice you can often get away with booking only a few (perhaps just one). Once you’ve had your visa registered, you can stay where you like.
Extending a tourist visa is a hassle and the extension, if granted, will usually be only for a short time. Tourist visas are best for trips when you know exactly what you’re doing and when, where and for how long you’ll be doing it. To obtain a tourist visa you’ll need the items previously mentioned, as well as one of the following:
- Confirmation of hotel reservations, which can be a faxed copy on hotel letterhead signed and stamped by the hotel;
- Confirmation of bookings from a travel agent; or
- A visa-support letter from a youth hostel/ guesthouse (see the Business Visa section for tourist-visa support fees charged by some hostels and guesthouses).
A business (or commercial) visa supported by a Russian company is far more flexible and desirable for the independent traveler. These can be issued for three months, six months or two years, and are available as single-entry, double-entry or multiple-entry visas. Business visas eliminate the need for pre-arranged hotel confirmations, as the company inviting you ostensibly puts you up for the duration of your stay. While a visa to Russia supposedly allows you to travel anywhere, holders of tourist visas may have a harder time getting accommodation in smaller regional cities not listed on their visas than holders of business visas.
To obtain a business visa you must have a letter of invitation from a registered Russian company guaranteeing to provide accommodation during the entire length of your stay, and a covering letter from your company (or you) stating the purpose of your trip.
There are many organizations that will send you a business invitation for a fee, usually around US$100-200. You will need to send a fax or email containing your name as it appears in your passport, date and place of birth, nationality, passport number and expiry date, dates of entry to and exit from Russia (these can be approximate) and the name of the consulate at which you intend to apply for your visa.
These are flexible, extendable and even entitle you to pay Russian prices for items af7ected under the country’s dual-pricing. You’ll need proof of enrolment at an accredited Russian school or university, which usually requires prepayment.
This is the visa you get for a visit by personal invitation, and it’s also referred to as an ‘ordinary’ visa by some authorities. The visa itself is as easy to obtain as a tourist visa but getting the invitation is a complex matter.
The person who is inviting you must go to their local PVU office and fill out an invitation form for approval of the invitation. Approval, which takes several weeks, comes in the form of an izveshchenie, or notice of permission, good for one year, which the person inviting you must then send to you. You will need this invitation approval notice together with the standard application form to apply for the visa, which is valid for as many as 60 days in your host’s town. On arrival in Russia you will also have to go to the local PVU office to register your visa.
These fast-track business visas don’t require an advance invitation, and individuals arriving at Moscow’s Sheremetevo-2 or St Petersburg’s Pulkovo-2 airports can get them at a special consular office before going through passport control. You’ll need a copy of a Ministry of Foreign Atlairs (MID) invitation and a representative of your inviting company to meet you at the airport. Note, however, that airlines may not necessarily let you board your flight to Russia , because if you’re turned down for the last-track visa the airline is responsible for bringing you out again – so check with the airlines in advance.
This kind of visa is good for up to a month and attracts fees from about US$150 to US$250. Though expensive and problematic, it may be one way around the paper chase.
St Petersburg & Moscow 72-hour Stay Visa
Since February 2002, Russia has been running a trial scheme: tourists from Schengen countries and Britain. Switzerland and Japan , who wish to visit St Petersburg and Moscow for less than 72 hours, can receive their visas directly upon entry. Travelers, must apply at one of 29 authorized tour operators in their home country 48 hours before departure, where they fill in an application, pay a fee of US$35 and then collect the visa on arrival at one of six entry points: Sheremetevo Airport Terminal 2; St Petersburg’s Pulkovo International Airport; the Bagrationovsk and Mamonovo points on the Polish border in the Kaliningrad region; and the Brusnichnoe and Torfyanovka points on the Finnish border in the Leningrad region.
The aim is to increase Russia’s tourist intake from non-CIS countries. For the time being, US citizens are not eligible for the new visas because the Tourism Ministry believes that few US tourists would travel to Russia for less than a week. The government hopes the scheme, scheduled initially to run for a year, will make Russia’s major cities more attractive to Europeans seeking weekend getaways.
There are also plans to waive visas for tourists visiting Russia for less than 72 hours on cruises; this will mainly affect visitors to St Petersburg on cruises from Finland.
This is for ‘passing through’, which is loosely interpreted. For transit by air it’s usually good for 48 hours. For a nonstop Trans-Siberian Railway journey it’s valid for 10 days, giving westbound passengers a few days in Moscow without the obligatory hotel prebooking (those heading east can’t linger in Moscow ). Under certain circumstances, travelers transiting Russia and holding valid entry/exit visas to Armenia , Belarus , Kazakhstan , Kyrgyzstan , Tajikistan or Uzbekistan need not apply for a Russian transit visa. The requirements on this are sketchy, and while a Russian consulate may say it’s unnecessary, the odd; of being allowed into or out of Russia on the premise that you’re holding a Tajik visa are slim. Many border guards are not familiar with the latest regulations handed down in Moscow , so it’s always best to play it safe, especially when traveling to border crossings in remote areas.
At the time of writing, HIV/AIDS testing was required for foreigners staying in the Russian Federation longer than three months. By definition, this does not affect tourist visas, which are only issued for shorter stays. The medical certificate must be in English and in Russian. Consult the company sponsoring your business visa for the latest regulations.
Apply as soon as you have all the documents you need. Any number of unforeseen circumstances can arise to delay the processing of your visa, so try to be patient if things don’t go according to plan or what you perceive to be the rules. Business, tourist, private and student visas all take the same amount of time to process once you have the paperwork – be it invitation, confirmation or izveshchenie. This ought to be 10 working days, but can vary. You can pay a higher fee for quicker service at most embassies.
Transit visas normally take seven working days but may take as little as a few hours at the Russian embassy in Beijing.
Individuals can arrange their own visas, though long queues at embassies and consulates are common in the high season and Russian consular officials are sometimes less than bright and perky – and they rarely answer the telephone. If you’re booking your flight or accommodation through a travel agency, they’ll get your visa too for an extra fee, usually between US$35 and US$50 (agencies in Hong Kong, which must go through the embassy in Bangkok for visas, charge you more) For group tours, the work is done by the agency.
When applying, bear in mind that it’s usually a nightmare for a Russian to get a Western visa – the day you’ll spend at a Russian embassy or consulate is a picnic in comparison.
When you check in at a hotel, camping ground or hostel, you surrender your passport and visa so the hotel can register you with PVU. You’ll get your documents back the next morning, if not the same day, although you’ll usually need to ask, as nobody seems to remember to return them to you. A safer alternative is to tell staff at the front desk you need your passport back in five minutes so you can change some money. They’ll usually register it right then.
All Russian visas must be registered with PVU within three business days of your arrival in Russia, and again each time you move city. No ifs or buts about it. Some travel agencies claim that their visas don’t need to be registered. This is not true, so be highly suspicious of any company that tells you it is. Sometimes you have to pay a registration fee of US$5 to US$10.
The company or organization that invites you to Russia is responsible for your initial registration, and no other company can support your visa. You can’t take a visa issued on the invitation of, say, the HI Hostel in St Petersburg and have it registered in Moscow by the Travelers Guest House.
If you’re not sure which organization invited you (if the sponsorship line – on tourist visas this begins with the words V uchrezhdenie – has a name you’ve never heard of), the simplest option is to spend a night at one of the major hotels, which will register your visa for you right at the front desk; there may be a fee, but usually the cost of the room will suffice.
Extending a visa that’s not registered can be impossible, and getting out of the country with an unregistered visa could be a very expensive proposition. You may be lucky and just receive a lecture or even be allowed to leave unhindered, although travelers have reported fines of up to US$500 levied at the Finnish and Norwegian borders.
Visa Extensions & Changes
Extensions are time-consuming, if not downright difficult, as the above anecdote indicates. To avoid the need for an extension by asking a longer visa than you might need – you can always leave earlier but leaving later, and the visa allows will waste time and money. Many trains out of St Petersburg and Moscow to Eastern Europe cross the border
After midnight , so make sure your visa is valid up to and including this day. Don’t give border guards any excuses for making trouble.